With an increasing overlap between back-to-school season and the dog days of summer, some Colorado school districts are taking aggressive steps to address hot classrooms and listless students — including starting the year with shorter days.
But while these scheduling changes may help solve the heat problem, they have implications for a variety of other things, ranging from instructional time to parent work schedules.
In the Poudre School District, which starts today for two grade levels and tomorrow for the rest of the district, elementary and middle school students will be released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Meanwhile, at the south end of the state, Pueblo City Schools has moved its August start date to September 2 for most schools, largely to avoid the worst of the late summer heat.
Poudre district officials, aware that their early release “heat days” won’t please everyone, have emphasized that it’s a pilot effort that will be re-evaluated this fall.
“We’ve said to our community, ‘We’re trying this out. Come along with us on this journey,’” said Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications.
Parent Shannon Smith, whose son is in eighth-grade, said, “I understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nuts.”
In Pueblo, besides changing the calendar, administrators have met several times over the summer to discuss heat mitigation in case the district gets hit with any scorchers in September. Their plans include creating water stations in school hallways, having custodians arrive early in the morning to let cool air in and rotating students through cooler areas of schools.
“We are taking a very proactive position this year,” said Scott Jones, the district’s director of public relations. “It’s Pueblo….It can get very hot.”
Like many communities across Colorado, both Pueblo and Fort Collins suffered through sweltering heat last August when school started. The high temperature was 99 degrees in Fort Collins on Poudre’s August 20 start day last year and 94 degrees in Pueblo when that district’s students started six days later. The high temperatures stuck around in both districts for the first two weeks of school.
This year, the forecast for the next two weeks is considerably more moderate, with temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s in Fort Collins and the 80s and 90s in Pueblo.
Acknowledging the irony, Clark said, “There’s always Murphy’s Law, right?”
Simple question, complicated answer
Bert Huszcza, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Business Officials, said that complications due to hot weather stem from the fact that districts have increasingly pushed their start dates earlier in August.
“A lot of it’s tied into the testing that’s mandated,” he said.
Poudre parent Julie Trombley, whose two daughters are in fifth and eighth grade, is glad that administrators there are addressing the heat issue, but wonders why the district can’t start school after Labor Day or invest in more capital improvements to cool the schools.
“We’ve had a few years of ‘Oh, this is so hot,’” she said. “It just seems like a continuing problem.”
While starting school later in the summer was one of 15 solutions that Poudre’s heat advisory committee considered during 20 hours of meetings last fall, Clark said it was problematic for a variety of reasons. Few committee members wanted to extend the school year into June, delay the end of first semester until after winter break or tinker with instructional time before established state and national testing dates. An altered calendar also created potential mismatches between Poudre’ s vacation calendar and that of Colorado State University, where many district parents are employed.
“It’s a very simple question with a very complicated answer,” she said.
As for the 18 hours of instruction that will be lost to heat days this year, about half of that time will be recaptured by an additional day of instruction that replaced what was formerly teacher work day. Teachers will decide how to make up the additional time on their own.
The impact of heat on Colorado schoolchildren varies widely—and often depends when their schools were built and how subsequent capital improvement funds were allocated.
Huszcza said air conditioning is standard issue in most new schools, but isn’t in older buildings. And while some districts have retrofitted their old buildings with air conditioning systems, it can be costly and difficult.
“You’re talking about facilities where there’s no place to put venting,” he said.
Jefferson County Public Schools, a suburban district with many newer schools, is one of the lucky ones. It has air conditioning in 135 of its 155 schools. Those that don’t have it are all “mountain schools” at elevations above 7,500 feet.
Similarly, Aurora Public Schools also has air conditioning in all 59 schools, Mesa County Valley District 51 has air conditioning or swamp coolers in all 43 schools, and Adams 12 Five Star has air conditioning in all 49 schools.
But other districts, including Denver, Poudre and Pueblo, have many buildings that are neither air-conditioned nor cooled using other systems. In Poudre, only nine of 50 schools have cooling systems.
“That will bring your temperature down but it’s not air-conditioned like your house,” said Clark.
In Denver, where classes start for most students next Monday, 79 of the district’s 187 schools have no air conditioning or only partial air conditioning. All those schools have received portable cooling units this year.
In addition, ventilation systems have been checked to confirm proper air flow, fans are being placed in hallways and classrooms and custodians at those schools may arrive as early as 5 a.m. to let in cool morning air. If the heat gets really bad, individual principals have the option of releasing students early.
While many Poudre parents agree that classrooms were hot and uncomfortable last August, this year’s heat day plan creates hassles of a different sort. For some families, it’s the inconvenience of making alternative child care or pick-up arrangements. For others, it’s the scheduling puzzle of earlier sports practices.
“If I had a K-5 kid I’d be really mad,” said Smith, who works full time.
For a fee, the district’s after-school care program is providing child care in district schools during the two-hour heat day window. While some parents are upset about the early release schedule, Clark said feedback from surveys indicated that parents wanted an established plan, not last-minute announcements about isolated early release days or days off.
For Smith’s 14-year-old son, it’s cross-country practice, not after-school supervision, that will likely pose the biggest challenge during the heat day period. Instead of the usual 2:45 p.m. start time, his coach will hold practice at 6:15 a.m. for the next two weeks.
“He’ll get up at 5 o’clock,” said Smith.